A good friend of mine is in school for music education and does a lot of social justice work. When I started doing the autism advocacy thing he was one of my strongest supporters. Recently he had a class project where each group was given a disorder of some sort to study so they could discuss how to adjust teaching methods for students with disabilities. His group chose autism. He asked me if I could write a short letter about my experiences as a student with autism, and I've been meaning to share it with you guys.
This is what I wrote:
My experiences with ASD in the classroom weren’t all positive. I always did pretty well in school when I was young, but my odd behavior in the classroom got me in trouble. I was a social outcast and target for bullies from my very first encounter with preschool, and that had a big impact on how my teachers treated me, because I was seen as the problem. I was originally diagnosed with attention deficit, which I didn’t have, so my behavior was misunderstood.
I tend to get very focused on one thing and tune out everything else. This means that I will have trouble switching between subjects (this became easier when I got older and we walked from classroom to classroom, which gave a clearer transition between subjects). This also means I can have trouble concentrating because I’m thinking so hard about something else (not because I have difficulty concentrating in general). I sometimes missed out on class time because I’d finish my work in one subject and start reading a book, and I’d look up two hours later and realize everyone else had moved on to math and I hadn’t noticed.
What really struck me was how unsympathetic teachers can be. They’ll tell you they know you can do better. They’ll tell you you’re not trying hard enough, not motivated enough, need to try harder, need to pull yourself together, and none of that was working. They didn’t understand how hard I was trying, and even I didn’t understand what was going on with me, and it made me blame myself even more. When I was diagnosed (at around age 17) I was often told that I needed to just get over the autism, or that I was using it as an excuse. I talk to mothers who have autistic children and they say the same thing. Even when their children are diagnosed, it seems like they have these horrible stories about how the teachers said the child wasn’t trying hard enough. Children are expected to excel in every subject, every hour of every day, and that’s not possible for anyone. Two friends of mine have said that their kids’ teachers make the work easier for their kids and then wondered why they were still falling behind. Some teachers are really good but those stories stick out, and it really hurts me knowing that other children are going through what I did.
To music teachers, I’d say to be aware of the fact that not every child is going to excel in your subject. Autistic children may be average in music, or they may be far below or above average. Make no assumptions, ask questions of both the child and the child’s parents, and remember that just as no two children are the same, no two autistic children are the same. There is a huge amount of variation within the spectrum, with certain autistic people having very different strengths and weaknesses, and as the saying goes, “When you have met an autistic child, you have met one autistic child.” Even just a little bit of variation in the program can help an autistic child a great deal, and it will make a good impression on the child.